Stress can (literally) take years off you if you don’t learn to manage it. Here’s why

If you’re someone who experiences regular bouts of pressure and have ever thought, “This has taken years off me”, it turns out you could be right.

In decades past, medical professionals believed the main risk factors for disease included habits such as smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and high blood pressure. Stress wasn’t considered to pose a genuine risk.

However, in recent years scientists have found that stress can have a significant impact on our health.

In 2009, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize for her research into the anti-ageing process. The research showed that stress degrades the protective tips of our chromosomes (called “telomeres”). Every time our cells divide, part of the telomeres break off. When cells divide too many times, these protective tips are lost, which increases the risk of major conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and a weakened immune system.

One study, which monitored people who lived with high levels of stress, found that, over time, there was an average of seven years lost due to how these highly stressed people lived their lives.

Thankfully, this isn’t a fate we’re bound to suffer, even if we do experience intense periods of stress. Our bodies produce an enzyme called telomerase that lengthens the protective tips of our chromosomes, and one vital step we can take to help this process is to learn how to manage our stress.

According to the World Health Organisation, mental ill-health (which includes depression, stress and anxiety) will be the biggest burden of disease by 2030. The importance of stress management is hardly a new idea, but as Prof Blackburn suggests, we’re now only beginning to realise just how important it is to reduce our stress at a cellular level.

So, what can be done to aid the process of lengthening our telomeres to increase our chances of good health and longevity? Prof Blackburn highlights exercise as a key tonic, and stresses that we needn’t be marathon runners in order to expand our chromosome protectors.

In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in Britain, she said, “People who do moderate aerobic exercise — about three times a week for 45 minutes — have telomeres pretty much as long as marathon runners”, adding that telomere shortness is particularly strong in people who partake in little to no physical exercise. Even 10–15 minutes of light exercise every day can have a beneficial effect on the anti-ageing process.

An alternative option that research suggests has a considerable effect on telomere growth is meditation. When we’re under pressure, the stress hormone cortisol begins to flood our system. This is useful in times when, for example, we need to perform efficiently or focus intently on a task. However, when we’re in distress — and when there’s no release — cortisol keeps us in a state of fight-or-flight, which suppresses our immune system, causes inflammation, and raises our blood sugar levels.

Several studies have suggested that regular practices such as mindfulness meditation or loving-kindness meditation, are effective in reducing our stress levels, as they help to lower our breathing, pulse rate, blood pressure and metabolism rates. As little as 10 minutes every day over eight weeks can considerably improve our psychological and physical well-being.

And while it’s easy to believe the stress that causes us damage comes via traumatic or overwhelming experiences, most of the damage for the body and mind happens when we constantly experience little stresses that build up over time without release. One reason to explain why this is a growing problem is because we’re often so caught up with being switched on all the time that we forget to unplug regularly, to relax and unwind.

While most of us lead busy lives, it’s a safe bet to assume that we can all find a spare 10 minutes in our day to de-stress. The Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh recently said that we are so busy that even our text messages and e-mails are rushed, adding, “We always have time for at least one in-breath and out-breath before we press ‘send’ on a text or e-mail.”

How true that is — there are few tasks we perform so hurriedly as when we send messages to our friends and colleagues.

The advice to slow down and take time out on occasion has been around for thousands of years, and now science is able to confirm the wisdom behind some of the oldest teachings and philosophies pointing the way to good health.

There’s nothing we take for granted more than our body and mind. While they impressively endure all that we put them through, there’s only so much they can take before problems start to occur. With this in mind, perhaps we should commit to giving them an occasional break, which might help to add years onto our lives rather than take them off.

Published in The Star — Malaysia’s biggest-selling English daily newspaper. For more on emotions, mental health, mindfulness, and well-being, connect with me on Twitter @RealSClarke.

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